Each week, the Freshwater Society publishes a digest of important regional, national and international articles and research on water and the environment. Scan the articles here, then follow the links to read the articles in their entirety where they originally were published.
Study: 11 percent of water violations yield financial penalties
At old taconite waste pits near Hoyt Lakes, Cliffs Erie had 225 wastewater violations in a five-year period ending last year.
Yet the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which oversees those discharge permits, didn’t fine the operation until earlier this year, when it issued a $58,000 penalty one day before a citizens’ lawsuit was to have been filed.
“I would say if we hadn’t sent out a notice-of-intent letter, action still wouldn’t have been taken,” said Marc Fink, the Duluth lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity and two other groups.
Cliffs Erie isn’t the only Minnesota wastewater polluter who hasn’t been asked to dig too deeply into its pocketbook.
A recent Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy analysis of all wastewater permit violations reported to the agency from 2005 through 2009 shows two-thirds violated permits at least once. Yet only 11 percent of those violators paid a financial penalty.
–The St. Paul Pioneer Press
Chamber sues state over mining and wild rice
The state’s largest business group filed suit against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, raising the heat in an increasingly contentious fight over mining in northern Minnesota and what’s good for wild rice.
The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which represents PolyMet Mining Corp. and other minerals companies, accused the agency of holding them to a different standard from other industries on how much sulfate they can discharge into Minnesota’s wild rice waters.
High concentrations of sulfates are toxic to wild rice, and the debate about how much is too much has become a flashpoint in the broader environmental conflict over the proposed expansion of mining on the Iron Range.
–The Star Tribune
U.S. files civil suit in BP oil spill
The Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit in New Orleans against the oil giant BP and eight other companies over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Although the complaint does not specify the damages that the administration is seeking, the fines and penalties under the laws that are cited in the complaint could reach into the tens of billions of dollars.
“We will not hesitate to take whatever steps are necessary to hold accountable those who are responsible for this spill,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said at a news conference.
Mr. Holder said the department was “making progress” on a criminal investigation of the companies involved in the spill.
–The New York Times
Report: La. sand berms stopped little of BP’s oil
A chain of sand berms built by the State of Louisiana to block and capture oil from BP’s runaway well in the Gulf of Mexico stopped a “minuscule” amount of oil and was largely a waste of money, the staff of the presidential commission investigating the spill said in a report.
The report, a draft, found that a decision by Thad W. Allen, the retired Coast Guard admiral who led the spill response, to approve construction of the berms was made under “intense political pressure” from federal, state and local politicians and against the advice of an expert panel advising on the spill response.
“The decision to green-light the underwhelmingly effective, overwhelmingly expensive Louisiana berms project was flawed,” the commission staff wrote.
–The New York Times
New study offers some hope for polar bears
Sea-ice habitats essential to polar bears would likely respond positively should more curbs be placed on global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new modeling study published in the journal, Nature.
The study, led by the U.S. Geological Survey, included university and other federal agency scientists. The research broke new ground in the “tipping point” debate in the scientific community by providing evidence that during this century there does not seem to be a tipping point at which sea-ice loss would become irreversible.
The report does not affect the decision made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 to list the polar bear as a threatened species.
–USGS News Release
3M retirees build solar water purifier
Bob Nepper’s North St. Paul basement is littered with strange-looking tools, some of them hand-made on his metal lathe. His garage is filled with an assortment of devices he created to make household chores easier.
But inventing is more than just a hobby for Nepper. He and his friend Bill Stevenson of Lake Elmo have created a device that may help relieve the cholera epidemic in Haiti.
The invention is a solar-powered water pasteurizer that can cheaply and easily clean water.
Missionary groups from Indiana and South Dakota took a few of the pasteurizers to Haiti after the catastrophic earthquake in January, but the devices were held up in customs and sat idle at a dock. Now a Florida missionary group has bought another of the pasteurizers and plans to take it to Haiti.
Contaminated drinking water has been the main cause of the cholera outbreak that has killed more than 2,200 Haitians in the past few months.
–The St. Paul Pioneer Press
Army Corps says it lacks $$ for Mississippi dredging
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it is likely to run short of funds as early as next spring to fully dredge one of the nation’s busiest waterways, potentially slowing the movement of key imports and exports and raising shipping costs.
A loose coalition of shippers, state governments, port operators and farmers up and down the Mississippi River is pressing Congress to add tens of millions of dollars to the Corps’ budget for fiscal 2011. The money is needed, they say, to allow the agency to dredge the ports and channels around New Orleans and Baton Rouge, La., to a standard depth and width necessary for cargo ships to pass.
The Mississippi River is a major transportation route for American businesses and farmers to send and receive goods, but its mouth requires constant dredging to remove the silt brought down the river and its tributaries.
The fiscal 2011 budget calls for the Corps to receive $63 million for Lower Mississippi dredging, $6.3 more than it received in fiscal 2010. But actual costs of dredging total about $85 million annually on average, and topped $110 million in fiscal 2010, according to the Corps.
–The Wall Street Journal
Dawson, Mn., meat processor to pay for pollution
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Noah’s Ark Processors LLC, have reached an agreement that resolves alleged violations of water quality laws and rules at its meat processing plant and animal hide storage building in Dawson. The company was given a $20,000 civil penalty and is required to complete a number of corrective actions.
An inspection Aug. 25, 2009, documented blood-contaminated water and untreated manure discharging from the facility to the ground, and discharges of animal hide salting leachate discharging from the hide building. The company has stopped the discharges and worked to recover contamination, applied for permits, and submitted reports on recovery work and plans to prevent future discharges.
Alleged violations include operating without appropriate industrial stormwater, wastewater and industrial by-product permits, failure to notify the agency of the discharges and provide requested information and lack of a stormwater pollution prevention plan.
–MPCA news release
Study: Cancer rate not high in ‘Erin Brockovich’ town
A state survey has not found a disproportionately high number of cancers in Hinkley, a high-desert community that has become the symbol of public fears about exposure to groundwater tainted with carcinogenic chromium 6.
From 1996 to 2008, 196 cancers were identified among residents of the census tract that includes Hinkley — a slightly lower number than the 224 cancers that would have been expected given its demographic characteristics, said epidemiologist John Morgan, who conducted the California Cancer Registry survey.
The survey did not attempt to explain why any individual in Hinkley contracted cancer, nor did it diminish the importance of Pacific Gas & Electric Co. cleaning up a plume of groundwater with elevated levels of chromium 6, Morgan said.
In this preliminary assessment we only looked at cancer outcomes, not specific types of cancer,” Morgan said. “However, we did look at a dozen cancer types in earlier surveys of the same census tract for the years between 1988 and 1998. Overall, the results of those surveys were almost identical to the new findings, and none of the cancers represented a statistical excess.”
The findings come as some residents are pushing PG&E to purchase their properties, after tests showed that chromium-tainted groundwater was migrating toward them. That miles-long plume, the result of decades of dumping water tainted with chromium compounds into local waste ponds, was at the center of a $333-million settlement over illnesses and cancers made famous by the movie “Erin Brockovich.”
–The Los Angeles Times
Measuring groundwater by satellite
When you dive into that salad full of lettuce grown in the American West, there’s a good chance you are enjoying the product of irrigation from an underground water source. These hidden groundwater systems are precious resources that need careful management, but regulatory groups have a hard time monitoring them, owing to a lack of accurate data.
Now, scientists at Stanford have found a way to cheaply and effectively monitor aquifer levels in agricultural regions using data from satellites that are already in orbit mapping the shape of Earth’s surface with millimeter precision.
The amount of water in a groundwater system typically grows and shrinks seasonally. Rainfall and melted snow seep down into the system in the cooler months, and farmers pull water out to irrigate their crops in the warmer, drier months.
In agricultural regions, groundwater regulators have to monitor aquifer levels carefully to avoid drought. They make do with direct measurements from wells drilled into the aquifers, but wells are generally few and far between compared to the vast size of most groundwater systems.
–Stanford University News
River bypass for California delta wins support
Federal and state officials said they supported construction of a massive structure around California’s environmentally crippled delta to make deliveries of fresh water to farms and cities more reliable.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said such a structure would divert water from north of the delta, where the Sacramento and the San Joaquin Rivers meet, to water users in the Central Valley and in the southern part of California.
It would be accompanied by the restoration of “tens of thousands of acres of marshes and flood plains” in the delta to bolster populations of endangered and threatened fish, he said in a telephone news conference.
Farmers and cities in Southern California have been at loggerheads with environmentalists over how significantly water flows to the south should be restricted to help threatened species recover. The delta is the central switching yard where water from the Sacramento River is either sent south to agribusinesses and cities or to the west, where it supports diminishing stocks of native fish as it flows into San Francisco Bay.
–The New York Times
Feds promise to battle Asian carp
Federal officials promised a stepped-up fight to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes by better tracking their movements, blocking potential migration pathways and killing any that manage to evade a network of new and improved barriers.
A $47 million battle plan for 2011 calls for refining technologies that detect the presence of Asian carp by identifying their DNA in water samples, and for developing better means of trapping, netting or starving carp already in waterways that lead to the lakes. It also pledges to continue initiatives begun this year, such as researching ways to prevent the unwanted fish from breeding.
“The Obama administration has taken an aggressive, unprecedented approach to protect our Great Lakes and the communities and economies that depend on them from the threat of Asian carp,” said John Goss, the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s carp program director.
–Minnesota Public Radio
New environment chair wants mining guarantees
The incoming Republican chair of the Minnesota House Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources Committee says he will build on groundwork laid by his Democratic predecessor.
Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, said he shares a results-oriented approach with former committee chair Jean Wagenius. He said he’s interesting in streamlining government, and the permitting process in particular.
“Are there things we can do … that speed it up so business knows what’s going to happen,” McNamara said. “I think that’s possible while protecting the environment.”
On the topic of mining, McNamara said copper-nickel mining can be done responsibly, but he wants substantial guarantees from mining companies that they’ll be around to clean up when the mining is done.
–Minnesota Public Radio
USDA offers funding for conservation projects
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced USDA is seeking proposals for projects that will bring partners together to help farmers, ranchers and private nonindustrial forest landowners implement beneficial water and land conservation practices.
“Farmers, ranchers and owners of forest land play pivotal roles in protecting and enhancing natural resources,” Vilsack said. “Our goal is to support projects that will improve the health of the natural resources on their land and bring the environmental and economic benefits of conservation to their local communities.”
The requirements for submitting project proposals for the Agricultural Water Enhancement Program and the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative can be viewed at www.regulations.gov. USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will provide financial and technical assistance to eligible producers in approved project areas.
–USDA news release